Sweet Nothings

Artificial sweeteners and your weight loss

One of my favorite questions – and I hear it frequently in my practice, at meetings, in social settings, at the beach, on vacation, and when I run into people on the street – is whether or not artificial sweeteners are bad for you?

The answer to that question lies in one’s ability to evaluate risk.

I tell patients all the time that almost everything that we do carries some risk. Hopefully, that same choice offers a potential benefit. Your lifetime odds of dying on a plane are less than 1 in 10,000,000, presuming you fly on one of the top 25 major carriers. Your lifetime odds of dying in an automobile accident: about 1 in 158. I am going to guess that you’re not going to stop driving because of the fact.

Every time you get into a car, you know that there is a risk. That knowledge should make you a better, more cautious driver. And the key to being a good driver is minimizing those risks in a way that allows you to enjoy the necessary advantages of driving a car.

Evaluating Health Risks
Whether it is using artificial sweeteners or taking any prescription medication, there is always a risk.

Yes – every medicine comes with risks. Whether it is the risk of side effects, or of unpredictable and unwanted complications, risk is always present. That’s what we do as doctors: help you to analyze the potential benefits of any treatment, as weighed against the risks. In the case of man-made artificial sweeteners, the potential benefits are fewer calories and potential weight loss.

As I have said time and time again, the risks of being overweight can be life threatening. Regarding artificial sweeteners…

What are the risks?
I am not trying to sell anyone on artificial sweeteners. If you can drink water all day, you are doing the right thing for your mind and body. Natural sweeteners – consumed in moderation – are preferred as part of a regular diet (with the notable exception of high-fructose corn syrup).

If you are overweight, however, it is worth noting that all of the major, zero-calorie artificial sweeteners on the market are FDA-approved and considered “safe” by that government agency, this despite Internet rumors and a wide variety of conspiracy theories.

Each of these (below) should be consumed according to the same cost/benefit analysis that goes along with anything you eat or drink, any medicine you take, and pretty much anything you do in life that gives you pleasure at the potential expense of your health (and that’s everything):

Sweet’N Low
The original and most-studied artificial sweetener, introduced back in 1957. It comes in the pink packages.

Controversial research back in the 1970s suggested that saccharine, the active ingredient in Sweet’N Low, might cause bladder cancer. (It did so in laboratory rats when administered in massive doses). Subsequent studies have affirmed the safety of the drug, and in 2000, the U.S. National Toxicology Program dropped saccharin from its list of suspected carcinogens and removed all warning-label requirements.

Saccharine is between 300 and 500 times sweeter than sugar, which means that it can be used in smaller doses. It is also the most inexpensive of artificial sweeteners.

Aspartame, aka “Equal,” also “NutraSweet”
Aspartame has a wonderfully sweet taste, and unlike the saccharin there is very little aftertaste. It is found in the blue packages.

We do know that aspartame stimulates the brain. On the other hand, I have seen some patients who are convinced that the Aspartame increases their headaches or makes them feel “fuzzy headed.” That said – and you should always heed your body’s warning signals – Aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied of all food additives and, again, considered “safe” by the FDA.

Of note: Aspartame has been available for 25 years now. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar, though the idea of the packets is that each granulated “portion” sweetens equally according to the same quantity of sugar.

Sucralose, aka “Splenda”
This is my personal favorite and tastes very similar to sugar. It is, like Aspartame, 600 times sweeter than sugar. (This is the active sweetener in most all OurSkinny Mini Meals.)

Sucralose has been around since 1976, but pending scientific trials it didn’t appear in the United States in now-familiar yellow packets until 1998. Today, almost 60% of all products made with artificial sweeteners are made with Sucralose.

Again, most every study – and there have been hundreds – suggests that Sucralose, when used in moderation, is perfectly safe. That is the stance that the FDA takes, and I am not going to argue.

Stevia, aka “Truvia”
This is probably the closest thing to a simple plant product.

I am not personally a great fan of the taste of Stevia, but, like the earlier products, it has a very powerful sweet taste. It has quickly become the “number two” sweetener among all that I have discussed.

As for the FDA, it is still in the process of studying a variety of stevia-based products. Truvia (as produced by Cargill and the Coca-Cola Company) received a “no-objection letter” supporting its safety, and there is no reason to suspect that it is in any way harmful to your health.

That said, there is no reason to suspect that the others I have mentioned are either.

In Conclusion:
Again, the real question is not whether artificial, no-calorie sweeteners are safe. All of them approved for our use and appear in thousands upon thousands of products we consume every day.

The question, if you are overweight, is will you be successful in making healthier choices? Also: are the minimal, potential risks associated with artificial sweeteners worth accepting, given the benefits of a reduced-calrorie diet?

Because the one thing we do know for sure is this: if you lose excess weight, you will be healthier and therefore likely to live longer.

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